For some reason, Saturday evenings seem the perfect time for curling up in my bedroom chair and reading poetry. One of my favorite go-to books is “A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry,” edited by Czelaw Milosz (1911 – 2004), a Polish poet, prose writer, translator and diplomat of Lithuanian origin who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.
After reading this collection many times, I finally got around to reading the book’s introduction where I found some very interesting and provocative observations about art and writing. In quoting Schopenhauer, Milosz states …
“Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life: ‘This is shown by those admirable Dutch artists who directed this purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects, and established a lasting monument to their objectivity and spiritual peace in their pictures of still life, which the aesthetic beholder does not look on without emotion: for they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artist, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.’
“The secret of all art, also of poetry, is, thus, distance.”
I pondered that last statement – the secret of art is distance – for quite a while. At first I felt I disagreed, thinking of the subjective art and writing so popular in the last century. But then I reconsidered. If I substituted the word detachment for the word distance, I saw another interpretation.
Any art that is too personal or too subjective runs the risk of egocentricity; one of the characteristics of great art is its universality. If an artist can create from a distant or detached position he will be in that peaceful, still place that invites the muse, and the audience, to enter.
In another section of the Introduction, Milosz says the Old Chinese and Japanese poetry has had a significant influence on American poetry since the turn of the century (20th). “Undoubtedly, what accounts for much is the very discovery that we can understand them, that through their lips eternal man speaks, that love, transience, death were the same then as now.”
This is exactly what I had discovered during my reading of the poetry in “The Book of Luminous Things.” I understood so many of the poems at an intimate level – the sadness of the Chinese traveler when parting from his friend 700 years ago is as real and immediate as it is today; the loss of the loved one just as poignant as that which took place a thousand years ago.
Good poetry enables us to speak to each other across the continents and across the centuries. What makes us human is not the color of our skin, not our politics, geography, philosophy or religion; it is our experience of this happening we call life.
After painting for the last several months, the quietness of autumn is drawing me back to words. As I reread some of my favorite poetry books, I’ll share them with you.
Winter Dawn by Tu Fu
The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The birds in the eaves are restless,
Because of the noise and light. Soon now
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.